NBA: Which Teams Are Legitimate Championship Contenders?

At this point in the season, it’s always fun to envision your team doing great things in the playoffs (unless you cheer on the Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Bobcats or another hopeless team). But most teams have to reach a point where they can no longer be deemed legitimate championship contenders.

However, for some teams, like the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, that point will not come.

Oklahoma City and Miami made the playoffs last year and both had success, winning their conferences (and Miami won it all). This year, both teams are going to fight to get back there, as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin (instead of James Harden) lead the Thunder, while the same trio–LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh–leads the Heat.

But this year there are some other strong teams. The Los Angeles Clippers are much stronger, as Chris Paul could be the Most Valuable Player and Blake Griffin is having a good year. The New York Knicks have emerged and ascended the ranks of the Eastern Conference and while I don’t believe they are legitimate contenders, they deserved to be mentioned in a championship conversation.

How about the Chicago Bulls? The San Antonio Spurs? The Memphis Grizzlies? The Golden State Warriors? The Atlanta Hawks?

All of these teams are having successful campaigns and they all could make deep playoff runs, especially if they bolster their roster at the trade deadline. If you want to talk about the 10 most realistic championship contenders, you would probably include the Hawks, Bulls, Heat, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Warriors and Grizzlies.

The Los Angeles Lakers have talent, but at 15-21, it’s hard to include them in this conversation. The Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets are good, but–as Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Adam Fromal mentioned here–Indiana isn’t a great shooting team. Denver has talent, but they lack the star power and defense (23rd in opponent points). The Houston Rockets struggle on defense, but they are second in points scored with Harden and Jeremy Lin having great years. So they have the ability to upset some teams and do something special, even if it is unlikely.

They will likely be matched up against the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs or Grizzlies, all championship contenders. The Clippers upset the Grizzlies last year, but a balanced team with Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay definitely possesses talent, and getting into the playoffs the last two years has given them experience. They are also second in opponent points, allowing a spectacular 89.7 points per game.

Paul has 2.62 steals per game and 9.7 assists per game, first and second in the league. He is a legitimate MVP contender who sets up Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan (who has a 60.6 field goal percentage partly because of Paul) and Griffin. The Clippers reeled off 17 straight wins and they will be a force come playoff time (likely with home-court advantage in their first two series).

San Antonio is an old team, but they are very experienced and still have lots of talent with Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. They can’t be counted out and the top seed in the West for two years in a row is hungry. They want a championship more than ever and, while they aren’t the favorites, they definitely have a chance to make and win the NBA Finals.

Golden State has been very consistent and they have tons of talent; they are a very complete team. They aren’t amazingly experienced, but they’ve got lots of talent and they are among the league leaders in all categories. They are tied for third in rebounds and tied for second in opponent field-goal percentage and while they will have a tough road, it’s possible. Winning a playoff series or two is definitely a realistic aspiration.

There is a lot of talent in the league, but the NBA isn’t a wide-open sport. Teams that make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season don’t win it all. There are usually five, six or, at the most, seven teams who can realistically win it all and this year is no different. The Heat, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies seem like the five best teams at the moment, and while there are other contenders, they all don’t seem to match up.

San Antonio is 28-11 and they can handle a playoff run for sure. However, they lost to the Thunder in six games last year and they have been outscored by 12 points in two games this year against Oklahoma City, which they will probably face at some point in the playoffs. Miami will probably be winning the East, as it will take a big move from another team and a great effort for seven games to upstage the defending champions.

Since Miami is far and away the top team in the East, they should definitely be the favorite to win it all. But they will still have to beat the best from the West and I think that team will again be the Thunder. They now have experience and they are complete with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka down low, Kevin Durant at the 3, Martin at the 2 and Westbrook at point guard. Paul and the Clippers are great, but they don’t seem to match up with OKC, who beat them earlier in the year.

It seems boring to pick the same teams every year and while it’s always fun to see Miami take on Oklahoma City, it’s also good to see a change. But unfortunately for people who like change, you won’t be seeing it. It takes huge offseason moves to shake up the structure of the NBA and there wasn’t much change in the structure of the NBA over the offseason.

So what does that mean? It likely means a repeat of the Heat and the Thunder in the Finals.

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